I wrote this a couple weeks ago and sent it to the New York Times as an op-ed. Surprisingly, they did not publish it, and I did not have the energy to send it to anyone else. I instead provide it for you here, which I suppose is the point of having my own blog. I’ve edited/updated it since the original writing.
“White Silence is Violence!”
We heard the chants a block away from the stadium. On the other side of the chant, Billy Joel awaited. Both U2 and Ed Sheeran had cancelled concerts scheduled occurring in the two days after a white police officer was found not-guilty of 1st degree murder in the shooting death of a black man.
U2, the great unifier, the political activists who want to bring peace to the world, wasted little time cancelling their concert. They could take on the Irish Republican Army, but not angry, protesting minorities.
Ed Sheeran, who inspires many a teenage girl (and my wife), cancelled his concert quickly as well. He’s no Bono, and he knows it. My wife and I had tickets for both. While we were admittedly disappointed, I derisively said that Bono of all people should have played on, given the public persona he fosters (though how much influence the Bono had on the cancellation was not clear).
It was an open question whether Billy Joel, whose concert was only a few days later, would follow suit. He’s not an activist — certainly he would cancel as well.
I should take a moment to say we had not attended a single concert in 5 years. I somehow purchased us tickets to three major concerts in the span of 5 days. This is not our typical week or even our typical year.
The day of the Billy Joel concert, with all signs pointing towards the curtain being drawn, a group of white protestors decided to protest on behalf of black people and Black Lives Matter. If white people stay silent, than violence against black people will not improve. If white people do not protest for and with black people, change will not occur. So the thinking goes.
I’m neither black nor white. I’m brown (though technically, so are most black people). I’m also a second generation Pakistani-American, and a practicing Muslim. I live in a city that is rife with racial tension and divisions. Frankly, I see more animosity and injustice towards black people than Muslims, though we’re not exempt.
While my love of Billy Joel may give me white man street cred, my skin color, my foreign name, and my non-Christian religion conspire to occasionally mark me as an outsider. Whenever BLM or terrorism or injustice comes up, my “minority” status gives me outsized importance. Sometimes because of where I work, where I’m one of only a few Muslims, and where my kids go to school, where my son is one of only a few Muslim kids, I occasionally feel I bear the mantra of “Muslim standard-bearer.”
My son’s school principal, a forward thinking young man near my age, spoke to me last summer about wanting to provide the school student body, mostly white and mostly Christian, some different perspective. The words “white privilege” came up in the discussion.
I was a bit uncomfortable with the phrase. I see plenty of white people on FB lecturing other white people about it, as well as plenty of minorities doing the same. I do think there is substance behind what has become a somewhat catch-all, throw-away, condescending phrase.
However, despite being a “targeted” minority in this country, I still have many forms of privilege. In addition to my “male privilege,” I also have “tall privilege,” “heterosexual privilege,” “doctor privilege,” “not-overweight privilege,” “upper class privilege,” “full head-of-hair privilege,” “U.S. citizen privilege,” “no-accent privilege,” and depending on the circumstance, “brown-but-not-black privilege.”
The last one is an advantage when walking on the street at night, but is a disadvantage when going through security at airports. Despite the many attempts at to demonize those of my faith, most of the time I believe I have it good compared to the average black person in this country.
So while I’m an outsider in some ways, in other ways I am not. I have incredibly hard-working parents; they instilled in me a strong work ethic, and due to their extremely hard work, gave me a relatively privileged upbringing compared to the majority of Americans (or the world). No, they’re not millionaires, but you don’t have to be in the 1% to be privileged — a nice home, great education, safe cars, food always on the table, safe neighborhood, extra-curricular activities. We may have eaten at Red Lobster a lot, but that’s because they have great cheddar biscuits.
The violence in Las Vegas a few days ago has led to the “white privilege” phrase coming out in a new context. Had it been a “brown” man that had committed these heinous acts, would the NRA would be discussing new gun legislation for the first time in 20 years? It seems unlikely.
The discussion we are having, instead of a discussion on how to keep Muslims out of the country, constitutes “white privilege,” even in relation to a mass murderer. It’s a difficult discussion because the violence is so fresh; there is an element of truth to it, and our national response bears watching.
Getting back to the concert: when my wife and I reached the outside of the stadium the same moment as the protesters, we hesitated.
We both have some empathy with aspects the BLM cause, even if the tactics and results are a mixed bag. My lack of “Christian-Judeo privilege” and the anti-Muslim, rage-filled man in the White House means we feel targeted, even if individually we are doing quite well. We know that my extended family and friends of ours are affected by the anti-Muslim sentiment. Not only am I a potential target, that same animosity appears to be fostering racial divisions in our country. So even though neither of us have suffered any injustice from the police or the White House, we understand the sentiments.
So we marched.
It felt good — neither of us had ever joined a protest. As I looked around, the only black people I saw were walking along the side of the protest, watching, seemingly in a bit of disbelief. I wasn’t sure what we were doing marching, but it seemed like the right place. For a moment — then the chant changed.
“No justice, no profit!”
Things became awkward. They wanted to cancel the show, but I had no intention of skipping the concert. I had waited 23-years for the chance to see Billy Joel. The last time I saw him, at age 14, he was touring with Elton John. My older brother took me to the concert, but I became ill halfway through. We left before Billy Joel played a single one of his own songs. This concert, as silly as it sounds, was on my bucket list.
So after 45 seconds of solidarity, we became scabs.
We left the protest, waited for them to pass, and headed towards the stadium. We saw the line of barricades and policeman on the other side. We walked up, showed our tickets to the police officer who had gruffly asked for them, and continued on. We passed a second line of officers, wearing gas masks, and headed to the gates.
The protests faded and we entered the stadium. Billy came on stage right on time. He conspicuously drank from an “NYPD” mug several times during the concert, easily visible on the giant video boards. He obliquely referenced the tension in the area, but otherwise just played.
I told my wife had I been true to the cause I would’ve torn up the tickets, kept marching, and scratched this one off the bucket list anyway. A true supporter would’ve walked with the protesters, kneeled for the anthem, and sang Piano Man from a local bar instead of a giant stadium.
So perhaps I am not a true rebel — perhaps attending the concert makes me part of the problem. No, I wouldn’t have received any recognition for skipping the concert, and the next day I would have kicked myself had I done so. However as a “privileged” minority, it may be as or more important for me to speak up than anyone else.
I don’t hate or even dislike the police — I have a great deal of respect for their profession, and they are the first people I will call if my life or my family’s life is in danger. We need them. Unfortunately, many parts of our city and country do have some justifiable reasons for distrust of the police, and there are endemic issues with inequality in our law enforcement and justice system that we can improve. If only the victims of inequality speak up, change will be slow in coming.
As it turns out, Ed Sheeran has already announced he’s returning next year. Don’t tell my wife, but it’s a great opportunity for me to protest outside.